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Discipline and Humility in Climate Change Mitigation Work – A Response to Emily Tyler's Blog Below

“I’ve been struck”, wrote Emily Tyler, “by the complexity…” She was not alone in being astonished at the scope and richness of issues which were spoken about during the Conversations Series between climate change mitigation practitioners and ‘development’ experts as part of the MAPS PostDevMit work. As a conversation facilitator for this series and development provocateur at the DevMit conference I was also struck by the wealth of detail which emerges when disciplinary experts are brought together in open conversation. Some issues, like the role of density in urban transport efficiency were familiar (given my work in transport policy). Others, like the role of the church in South Africa in supporting consumerism, were completely unexpected. By way of response to Emily’s blog here are some of my own thoughts.

Reflecting on the complexity in clear view during the Conversations I was struck by the wisdom embedded in the word ‘discipline’. Our ‘disciplines’ are our tools for working with the complexity of the world. They enable us to screen out certain aspects, which we then call “noise”, in order to focus on our chosen interests. Without the discipline of our discipline then this world can be a place of too much distraction. Is it an accident, I wondered, that the disciplines which delve into the richness of human experience – the historians and the ethnographers – rarely choose explicitly to intervene in it? Historians and ethnographers are the describers. They remind us of complexity (lest we forget).

By contrast the formality of science – of hypothesis-making and restrained data-gathering – allows us to focus. Using science we see patterns and rhythms amongst the complexity. Some of these patterns are so strong that we theorise about their causes and make predictions about the future with them. Engineering and economics disciplines use scientific techniques to see the world and then to design interventions in it. The interventions are, then, somewhat limited by the filters imposed by the discipline of science. Engineering and economics have traditionally focused on the tangible and the evidenced, marshalled towards a goal of efficiency.

Are there any alternatives to mere description or to the simplifying disciplines of science? One route out is via a ‘comprehensive’ science – one in which sufficient data, computing power and analytical savvy would allow the modelling of the ‘whole’ world. Whether you believe this is possible depends on whether you believe the intangible vagaries of human ego and quests for power over others can ever be predicted. I am not convinced that the intangible but doubtless powerful systems of hierarchy, dominance, submission can ever be drafted into a computer model.

Another route out of the complexity dilemma is that used in climate change adaptation and poverty-alleviation practices – to be purposefully localised, grounded and site-specific. In this way grand theories or models are not necessary. The focus is on immediate issues and challenges. The adaptation and poverty-work disciplines requires attention to the present, to the livelihood life-threatening and the immediate.

In the face of complexity it is easy to feel overwhelmed and, ultimately, defeated. “Where should MAPS be?” Emily asked, in response to these Conversations, “Deep versus broad?” In the face of an ongoing critique of science and forecasting, and in the context of our developing countries, it is tempting to throw away the broad future and focus instead on responding to the present. For Climate Change mitigation practice to do so would, though, be a mistake.

Rather, I suggest, we need a reformed science of mitigation. The scientific method is a powerful means for producing knowledge, but that does not mean that it will necessarily direct us to, or even be able to measure, the best interventions. In the conversation on consumerism we were told that advertising, that powerful lever of capitalism, is about the aesthetic, the emotional and the sensual. Drawing on these sensibilities is how the big players of consumption persuade us to spend more and differently. Science will always struggle to measure and forecast such deliciously human responses. If advertising has clues for how to leverage our spending upwards, does it also have answers for how to create future-looking livelihoods?

Coming out of the Conversations I remembered again that I cannot and will not know the answer to this “deep versus broad” question, or to many other questions which were raised. ‘My’ disciplines of science, engineering and sociology cannot and will not know the answers. Acknowledging this, and my own limited knowledge possibilities requires some humility of me, a dis-empower-ing of my-self and a trust instead in the power of shared knowledge commons to, somehow, find a way through. What is clear to me after the Conversations is that disciplinary arrogance stands in the way of deepened understanding. Is humility, I wondered as we completed the final conversation, one of the keys to our shared future?

Postscript: I avoided the formality of academic referencing in order to keep with the style of a blog post but would like to acknowledge the work of my PhD supervisor John Law in particular in airing ideas of hubris and humility, and in bringing my attention to reflections on the discipline of science.

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